Island oddities

Wanderlust readers relate strange tales of flying Caribbean-style and mistaken identities in Koh Samui

Published June 1, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

When you spend time traveling in the Caribbean, you learn that -- as with so many other parts of island life -- the airlines there don't operate exactly the way airlines in the U.S. do. Here are a couple of examples:

Several years ago my dive buddy and I, being employees of a major U.S. airline, were traveling on staff standby passes on one of the local Caribbean airlines that specialized in short turboprop hops between smaller islands. With these passes the rule is you show up shortly before flight departure and if they have any empty seats, they'll let you on.

Due to a late flight from the U.S., we showed up about 9:30 p.m. at the airline's ticket counter, still a good half-hour before the scheduled departure. We asked the slumped-over, half-asleep agent whether we could make the flight.

She sat bolt upright and exclaimed, "Are you booked on this flight?!"

No, we explained, we were staff standbys.

"Oh," she said, "everyone booked on the flight showed up early, so it left some time ago."

Another incident was when we were leaving for Belize City from one of that country's barrier islands. The terminal was a lovely island building on stilts with a wide verandah all around and large windows opened to catch the sea breezes. Across from the wicker chairs of the waiting area was a long plank counter running the length of the building. One agent was the only staff visible.

The phone rang and she answered, "XYZ Airlines, airport."

After listening for a bit, she said, "I'm sorry, this is the airport. You need to call reservations; please ring 5555," and hung up.

A few seconds later a phone farther down the counter rang and she walked over, picked it up and cheerfully announced, "XYZ Airlines -- reservations."

At that point the pilot strolled into the lounge, dressed up like a Chuck Yeager wannabe -- khakis, leather flight jacket, mirrored aviator shades -- and asked how many of us were bound for the city. When five of us raised our hands, he announced, "OK, we'll take the small plane."

Speaking of small planes, if you're a white-knuckle flyer, don't fly into the island of Saba. The airport is on a pinnacle high above the sea. It's postage-stamp size and runs from one cliff edge to the other. The runway approach entails flying straight into a towering cliff face, making a sharp left at the last possible moment and braking as hard as possible immediately on first touchdown. You stop just in time.

On takeoff you taxi as close to one edge as you can, engage the brakes, run your engines up to full power and let go. Takeoff is something of a misnomer as you essentially roll off the end of the runway and dip down to gain speed before climbing.

Most people arrive at Saba by boat.

-- David M. Foster___________

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Koh Samui: Trouble in paradise

As some previous Mondo Weirdo readers have written, Koh Samui is a cheap little Eden at the bottom of Thailand -- but some Eves go down better than others there. Let me elaborate.

My friends and I thought we should get to Koh Samui before it turned into a lager-lout-infested environ, the Ibiza of Asia. We, I should explain, were a gaggle of multicultural (Indian/Malay) girls who divide our time between being at university in London and living on the holidays in Malaysia. One of the "we" included a Siamese-looking, petite 20-year-old, whom I shall call Sunny.

We got to the island all excited and proceeded to look for somewhere to stay. The chalets we found were owned by a foreign woman, who seemed slightly amused that we were "local" tourists. We rushed quickly into the streets, to check out the renowned bars and to get details of the illicit full-moon parties. On the streets, we solicited looks -- we were the only travelers who weren't pasty white and/or aflame from the sun -- and got a few catcalls, but hey, some of the entourage were pretty fine women.

We didn't realize the real reason behind the excitement we aroused until we walked into a night club later that night. It was massive and had fountains and pools within its confines and the beach in the backyard. Sunny and the rest of us were at the bar getting drinks when a man came up to her and said politely and hesitantly, in English, "Hello." Sunny smiled -- he was quite yummy-looking, English and burnt to the bone in a nice way -- and responded in her slightly cosmopolitan, mostly English-sounding voice. The man was taken back.

"Oh, you are on holiday," he said -- and clearly disappointed, strode off without another word.

Sunny thought maybe the sun had got to his mousy-haired head a bit too much, or -- and suddenly the truth hit us -- maybe he had thought she was a prostitute. We were appalled. Sunny's stunning looks had become a tar brush that we, despite not looking remotely Thai except for our muddy skin, were to be tainted with. She looked Thai, so she must be a whore -- and since we were in a group, we must be on the prowl together. Even the girls gave us funny looks and expressed surprise when we spoke in lucid, and often livid, English.

Needless to say, this aspect of perverse stereotyping pretty much ruined our holiday. Koh Samui's clubs and bars lost their luster almost immediately. Some solace came in its translucent emerald waters, but we spent the rest of the holiday traipsing around the temples and streets with our cameras in full view, lest anyone mistake us for being on the job, by default of our skin tones.

Koh Samui, paradise? Not for this Eve and her bunch.

-- Jessica Ramakrishnan___________

By David M. Foster

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